How to Understand the Divine Liturgy
The word Liturgy means the corporate service of worship of the assembled Church (i.e., to mean the Liturgy of the Eucharist).
In order to understand the Liturgy, one must do several things. First, one should start with an old version of the Liturgy. Within this, several aspects must be considered: the meaning of the words, their biblical origin, and the correct way the rituals (rubric) should be performed. Studying the “silent prayers” of the priest also gives excellent insight into the symbolism behind the various acts performed by the priest and the deacons. Second, one should consult the sayings of the Fathers of the Church, as well as other ancient writers. This helps us understand the historical changes which have occurred over the years. Reading the Fathers can give meaning to the rituals. Third, one should study the Old Testament, and more specifically the rituals used by the priests in performing the animal sacrifices. It is in these that one can find the true meaning of some of the Liturgy’s rituals. Many of the actions and words of the priest have an old Testament “Type” or counterpart. Fourth, one should meditate on the information gathered, trying to synthesize it into a coherent understanding of the Liturgy and its rubrics.
History of the Divine Liturgy
The Liturgy and its rites were delivered by the Apostles to the churches, which they had established. The Apostles were taught by the Lord himself, who for forty days following His resurrection, spoke to them “of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3).
Saint Paul emphasizes this fact when he says, “For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which He was betrayed took bread …” (1Cor 12:23). Here, St. Paul emphasizes the fact that each Apostle received the liturgical tradition from the Lord Himself. Gregory Dixaffirms the same when he writes: “Every local church had received the rite of the Eucharist, the way of performing it with its first evangelization. This is important. It means that the living tradition of the Liturgy as the heart of its corporate life went back into the very roots of every apostolic church.” (The Shape of the Liturgy, Dix, Gregory)
In the beginning, the Liturgy was passed from the Apostles to their successors, the bishops, as an oral tradition. This is the same way in which the books of the Holy Bible were propagated. Oral tradition always preceded the written forms of both the Holy Bible and the liturgies.
The Liturgy was commanded to writing only after heresies started to appear in the Church, and when heretics attempted to put their heretical teachings into the Liturgy. The fact that a manuscript of a liturgical text is dated to the fourth century does not mean that the liturgy was composed in the fourth century, but merely that it was recorded in writing in the fourth century.
Origin of Saint Cyril’s Liturgy
Saint Cyril’s liturgy was originally known as the liturgy of Saint Mark. Saint Mark, one of the seventy Apostles, who brought Christianity to Egypt around the middle of the first century (around the year 43 A.D.), also brought to Egypt the liturgy of Saint Mark. This liturgy, which was originally written in Greek, is probably the oldest and most authentic liturgy in Christendom. Besides the Coptic Orthodox Church, other Orthodox Churches use it in their prayers.
Saint John Chrysostom tells us that Saint Mark was the first Apostle to inscribe the Liturgy, in the form of a service or a regular church ritual, which is strictly followed in the celebration of the Eucharist.
This is not without biblical foundation. We know that the very first Eucharist was held in the upper room, in Saint Mark’s house in Jerusalem. The man carrying the pitcher of water is believed to be no other than St. Mark himself (Mk 14:13-15). The disciples, even after the resurrection of the Lord, continued to meet and pray in his home. They also received the Holy Spirit there. According to tradition in all Apostolic churches, Saint Mark’s home is well known as the first church in the world.
The liturgy of Saint Mark has some characteristics that were borrowed by the other liturgies, such as the preface and the Sanctus. Gregory Dix emphasizes this: “The use of the preface and the Sanctus in the Eucharistic prayer began in the Alexandrian Church at some time before A.D. 230, and from there spread first to other Egyptian churches, and ultimately all over Christendom.
By the end of the fourth century, another liturgy started to be used, that is the liturgy of Saint Basil the great. This is the liturgy we most commonly pray today.
Saint Cyril, the 24th Pope of the See of Saint Mark, who is known as the Pillar of the Faith, added some litanies to the original text and translated the Greek liturgy of Saint Mark to Coptic. Because of this, it became known as the liturgy of Saint Cyril. Beside these minor additions, there are virtually no differences between the two.
Spiritual Significance of Saint Cyril’s Liturgy
As we study the Liturgy, we are reminded of the spirit of the early church to the sacrament of the Eucharist.
The Liturgy was considered an action for every believer – it was not merely words said but rather something actionable. Every person entering the Liturgy was a participant of equal importance. The Bishop had his role, the priest his role, the deacon his role, and the laity their role: “For unto the high priest his proper services have been assigned, and to the priests their proper office is appointed, and upon the Levites (deacons) their proper ministrations are laid. The layman is bound by the layman’s ordinances. Let each of you, brethren, in his own order give thanks unto God, maintaining a good conscience and not transgressing the appointed rule of his service, but acting with all seemliness.” (St. Clement Letter to Corinthians)
The Liturgy of Saint Cyril shows the importance of the function of the laity in the early church. The liturgy has 18 litanies where the church offers up prayers on behalf of the whole world for every aspect of life. The believers in the early church recognized the laity’s role as members of the Body of Christ, and that they were responsible for the prayers to keep the world safe. It was through the prayers of the Church as one Body that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood.
Structure of Saint Cyril’s Liturgy
Parts of the Liturgy
Any Liturgy constitutes four basic parts:
- Introduction to the Liturgy called Preface.
- The Praise of the Cherubim called Pro Sanctus.
- Institution: the words of the Lord on the Bread and Wine.
- Invocation or Epiclesis: the Holy Spirit or the Word to bless the bread and wine to the Body and Blood.
THE PREFACE OR THE ANAPHORA (the lifting or carrying up)
- It starts with a dialogue between the priest and the people:
“The Lord be with you all —– And with your spirit.
Lift up your hearts —— We have them with the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord ——- It is meet and right.”
This is an invitation to the Eucharist: The Word Eucharist means Thanksgiving. Therefore, Let us Give thanks to the Lord is literally translated “Let us make Eucharist to the Lord.”
- Meet and right: We notice here the abundant number of the verbs of praise. Among these are to praise You, bless You, serve You, worship You, give thanks to You, and glorify You, And confess to You night and day, with unfailing lips, with a heart that keeps not silent, and with unceasing glorifications. The priest here is switching between the sacrifice of the body and blood to the sacrifice of praise — the last response said by the people: A mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise.
- Thanksgiving for Creation of Heaven and Earth: You are He who has created the heavens, and that which is in the heavens, the earth and everything that is therein: the seas, the rivers, the springs, the lakes, and that which is in all of them.
- Thanksgiving for the Offering of the Sacrifice through whom we give thanks and offer unto You, with Him and the Holy Spirit the holy, co-essential, and undivided Trinity This rational sacrifice and this bloodless service.
PRE-SANCTUS AND THE PRAISE OF THE CHERUBIM (SANCTUS)
“For You are God, who are above every principality and every authority, and every power and every dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in that which is to come. You are He before whom stand thousands of thousands and ten thousand times ten thousand of holy angels and archangels, serving You.”
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of Your holy Glory
This praise was first added to the Eucharist in Egypt, specifically Alexandria before year 230 AD, and from Egypt to the end of the world.
The simplest explanation of these various facts is the use of the preface and Sanctus in the Eucharistic Prayer began in the Alexandrian church at some time before A.D. 230, and from there spread first to other Egyptian churches, and ultimately all over Christendom.
SHORT INVOCATION AND THE INSTITUTION
The priest signs the paten and the chalice together once, while saying: “Fill this, Your sacrifice, O Lord, with the blessing, which is from You, by the coming down upon it of Your Holy Spirit.”
These are the words of the Lord in the Last Supper when He instituted the New Covenant with His Blood. In the night in which He gave Himself up that He might suffer for our sins and death, which He accepted by His own will for us all He took bread into His holy hands which are without spot, or blemish, blessed, and life-giving.
THE GREAT INVOCATION
This is the third invocation: The first is an invocation to the Holy Trinity in the Rites of the Offering of the Lamb (in the very beginning of the Divine Liturgy), the second is an invocation for the Son (the short invocation) and this one is for the Holy Spirit. In all three, it is the same petition to God to change the bread and wine to the Body and Blood of our Lord.
CONCLUSION – THE FRACTION AND OUR FATHER
The Fraction is the Breaking of the Bread, one of the main parts of the original liturgies. Our Lord, after He blessed the bread, He broke it and gave it to His disciples.
Then, after these things, we say that Prayer which the Savior delivered to His own disciples, with a pure conscience entitling God our Father, and saying, Our Father, which art in heaven. O most surpassing loving-kindness of God! On them who revolted from Him and were in the very extreme of misery has He bestowed such a complete forgiveness of evil deeds, and so great participation of grace, as that they should even call Him Father. Our Father, which art in heaven; and they also are a heaven who bear the image of the heavenly, in whom is God, dwelling and walking in them.
– St Cyril of Jerusalem – Catechetical Lecture 23
Finally, there is the Elevation, Consignation and Commixture. Here, the priest takes the despotikon (meaning “for the Lord”), which is the middle part of the bread, and with It he signs the precious Blood inside the chalice in the form of the cross. Then he dips the extremity of It inside the chalice, carefully raises it soaked in the Blood, and signs, in the form of the cross, the pure Body which is on the paten. This is a symbol of the unity of the Body and Blood.
How St. Cyril’s Liturgy differs from St Basil and St. Gregory
There are three Main differences:
- The offerings on the Altar is identified as the “sacrifice” early in the service:
The First mention of sacrifice is made in the preface (anaphora): “You made everything through… Jesus Christ, through whom… we give thanks to you and offer this reasonable sacrifice and bloodless service, which all the nations offer You…In every place incense is offered to Your Holy name and a pure sacrifice. Over which sacrifice and offering we pray…”
The author is making the point that even from the beginning of the service, the Gifts are identified as a “sacrifice.” The sacrifice here is not referring to Body and Blood but rather the sacrifice of thanksgiving or the sacrifice of placing these gifts on the altar.
- The Litanies are prayed before the Epiclesis / Invocation:
In St. Basil’s Liturgy and in St. Gregory’s Liturgy, the litanies come immediately after the epiclesis (the change of the sacrifice to the Body and the Blood of the Lord). But in St. Cyril’s Liturgy, the litanies precede the epiclesis. This reflects two schools of thought. In the Coptic thought (St. Cyril), the litanies should be finished before the change occurs; then after the change, all the focus is on praising the Lord ONLY. In the Byzantine thought (St. Basil and St. Gregory), all the congregations’ requests to the Lord are presented after the change occurs because of the importance of these petitions. No one approach is better than the other, but rather two differing thoughts.
Another explanation for the position of the Litanies has to do with the origin of the Eucharist from the Last Supper. The last supper was a “chabûra” meal, a religious meal where those who wished to gather for special devotion did so on the eve before Sabbaths or Festivals. Part of the chabûra was the “berakah”- a prayer on the mixture of wine and water which was composed of a praise/thanksgiving, intercession, and ending with a doxology. The Eucharistic prayer was based on the Jewish berakah. Since the Liturgy of Saint Mark was a very early liturgy, it more closely resembled a Christian version of the Jewish berakah. Therefore, that same order of Praise which became the Preface or Anaphora, followed by the intercession or the litanies, and finally the doxology, which is the Sanctus. In other words, because the Liturgy of Saint Mark was one of the earliest liturgies, it adopted from Jewish prayers, which were the early foundation of the Liturgy. The Jewish prayer of the berakah, which was the blessing of the wine, became the framework for Saint Mark’s liturgy. The berakah was composed of: praise and thanksgiving, intercession, and ending with a doxology. The Liturgy of St. Mark copies this order with: the Preface/ Anaphora, the Intercession/Litanies, and the Sanctus.
- The Short Invocation:
This is also known as the first epiclesis. This part comes before the institution narrative and it simply asks God to fill the sacrifice with blessing through the descent of the Holy Spirit.
The First Invocation is asking “Fill this, Your sacrifice, O Lord, with the blessing, which is from You, by the coming down upon it of Your Holy Spirit”. The sacrifice referred to here is the sacrifice of thanksgiving and of placing the gifts on the altar. The prayer is asking that the Holy Spirit bless the gifts that are set forth in order that they may be consecrated and later become the Body and Blood.
The liturgy that has been instituted for us is full of history and deep meaning and tradition. We ask God that we continue to partake of the Eucharist while understanding the gifts that we have been given, and that these gifts represent a change in our lives during this Lenten season and beyond.
SourceS and where to go to learn more:
- The Shape of the Liturgy Dom Gregory Dix
- The Divine Liturgy of St Mark and The Origin of the Divine Liturgy by George Guirguis
- Understanding the Liturgy by Fr. Athansius Eskander
- Q and A sus copts- why litanies are before institution narrative
- A Synopsis of Dom Gregory Dix‟s The Shape of the Liturgy By Father John Worgul
- St Cyril of Jerusalem Catechetical lecture 23
- Cuming, G.J. (1997). “The anaphora of St. Mark: a study of development”.